History Lesson: The D&L Trail and Towpath

By Heather Mayer Irvine

The next time you lace up and head out on the D&L towpath, you wouldn’t be out of your mind to pretend you’re a mule. The towpath, which runs along the canal system, was developed in the 1820s for mules and mule tenders—mostly young children—to pull the canal boats that ferried anthracite all over the region, literally fueling the industrial boom.

Today, the towpath connects with the D&L Trail, which was created in 1990, as a product of the heritage corridor development, says Martha Capwell-Fox the archives and museum coordinator for the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor.

The trail and the towpath—they’re not interchangeable—will run, uninterrupted, some 165 miles from Wilkes-Barre to Bristol once the trail is completed, possibly by 2023.

“The trail is a way of making the historical corridor, which is an abstract idea that’s based on the route of the anthracite coal mines, into a physical reality,” says Capwell-Fox.

In the early to mid 1800s, Josiah White and Erskine Hazard built dams and canals in the Lehigh River, founded the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, and made the Delaware Division Canal an efficient way to transport anthracite coal, which helped fuel an industrial boom in Pennsylvania and the Northeast, according to the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor website.

Both the trail and the towpath run along the transportation route used during the 1800s to carry that anthracite. There are a few points along the path where you can see the old locks—a mechanism used to raise and lower boats when the water levels changed in the canal—and locktender houses. You can see a restored locktender house and mule barn on the path in Freemansburg.

After a severe flood in 1862, the canal system started to give way to the railroads for transportation.

“I’m a historian by training, so I really feel a deep connection to the area when I use the trail,” says Lauren Golden, D&L trail and stewardship manager, and runner. “I think about all the people and materials that traveled these same pathways over centuries when I’m running, and I’m grateful that these paths have been reused in a publically accessible way. And they’re free to use.”

Golden also points out that because the Lehigh River was privately owned by the company that built the canal and railroad system, there were very few places where the public could interact with the river.

“Now, without the canal and railroad traffic, the trails feel like a true greenway, removed from the hustle and bustle of daily life,” she says.

But there certainly is hustle and bustle on the trail and towpath today. A 2012 report found that 280,000 people visit the trail and towpath every year.

“I’d estimate that now, there are probably half a million visitors every year,” says Brian Greene D&L trail programs manager.

On a busy Saturday, the trail and towpath may see 500 to 600 people at certain points. Nearly half are runners or walkers.

There are also dozens of race events every year on the trail and towpath, including the Via Marathon and the D&L Half Marathon.

“It’s a great resource. You don’t have to worry about cars. You can run beside the river and through the trees. It’s mostly flat so you can get your PR. And it’s shaded,” says Greene. “But the really cool part is you’re literally retracing the footsteps of people and mules that walked the canals. For hundreds of years, people in the Lehigh Valley have been walking or running on this trail.”